WarnerMedia Sued For Giving People Want They Wanted (The Matrix, Streaming) During An Historic Health Crisis
from the oh-no,-not-what-people-want dept
AT&T got a lot wrong (and still really can’t admit it) with the company’s $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. There were endless layoffs, a steady dismantling of beloved brands (DC’s Vertigo imprint, Mad Magazine), all for the company to lose pay TV subscribers in the end.
But the one thing the company did get right, with a little help from COVID, was its attacks on the dated, pointless, and often punitive Hollywood release window. Typically, this has involved a 90 day gap between the time a move appears in theaters and its streaming or DVD release (in France this window is even more ridiculous at three years). Generally, this is done to protect the “sanctity of the movie going experience,” as if for thirty years the “sanctity of the movie going experience” hasn’t involved sticky floors, over priced popcorn, big crowds and mass shootings.
During COVID, big streamers like AT&T and Comcast shifted a lot of their tentpole films (like Dune) directly to streaming, which technically saved human lives, but resulted in no limit of raised eyebrows and scorn among the “Loews at the mall is a sacred space you can’t criticize” segment of Hollywood. You might recall that AMC Theaters was positively apoplectic when Comcast showed that release windows were a dated relic, declaring it would never again show a Comcast NBC Universal picture anywhere in the world if Comcast kept threatening the sacred release window (the threat lasted about a week).
WarnerMedia (in the process of being spun off by AT&T) has faced similar whining from the industry. This week the company was hit with a lawsuit (pdf) by Village Roadshow Films, which claims the company “rushed” the release of The Matrix Resurrections from 2022 to 2021 as part of an (gasp) effort to boost streaming’s popularity. All through 2021, AT&T/Time Warner released films simultaneously in theaters and on streaming to boost HBO Max subscriptions. And people liked it.
Unsurprisingly, Village Roadshow Films did not, claiming the effort (dubbed “Project Popcorn”) was a “clandestine plan to materially reduce box office and correlated ancillary revenue generated from tent pole films that Village Roadshow and others would be entitled to receive in exchange for driving subscription revenue for the new HBO Max service.” HBO Max and AT&T telegraphed this intention, so it seems hard to argue this was somehow clandestine. The suit also accuses WarnerMedia of ignoring the fact that piracy would have hurt the overall profits to be made from the film, though, again, metrics proving clear financial harm appear lacking.
But just as unsurprisingly, Warner Brothers thinks Village Roadshow Films is just annoyed by reality and shifting markets:
“In a statement shared with The Verge, Warner Bros. called the lawsuit ?a frivolous attempt by Village Roadshow to avoid their contractual commitment to participate in the arbitration that we commenced against them last week. We have no doubt that this case will be resolved in our favor.”
Again, while it’s true that AT&T attacked the sacred old release window to goose streaming subscriptions, this was something that happened during an historic plague in which indoor transmission of a deadly virus could kill or disable you. It’s also almost an afterthought that in the advanced home theater and mall shooting era, this is something consumers desperately wanted. For all its downsides, COVID had a strong tendency to painfully highlight shortcomings (see: broadband, the U.S. healthcare system) and dated antiquities (like release windows or a disdain for telecommuting) that no longer served us.
While there’s a shrinking sect of Hollywood folks like Spielberg who still think in-person theaters and release windows are sacred and above reproach, COVID laid bare the fact that not that many people agree with them. And while that certainly disadvantaged folks financially dependent on older models (like theater owners and studios heavily vested in release windows), the reality is what it is, and a popular change was accelerated all the same.